TAMPA — After 11 years, an old saying around Tampa Bay has renewed relevance once again. In the spring of 2004, as the Lightning skated to their first Stanley Cup, they rallied around the proclamation of then-coach John Tortorella, who declared: “Safe is death.” And now, after two periods of playing a tight, structured game, the Lightning let safe kill their chances at taking Game 1 at Amalie Arena on Wednesday night. They watched safe breathe life into Chicago, giving the Blackhawks their come-from-behind 2-1 win.
“We got a little too passive there,” Tampa Bay goalie Ben Bishop said. “We sat back a little too much against a really good team.”
Holding a slim 1–0 lead heading into the third period, the Lightning called upon the recent successes they had in New York. Against the Rangers, they kept to their structure and while they bent late in games when New York made a push, they did not break. When the Blackhawks press, however, breaks just seem to come.
After being kept at bay for 53:28, the Blackhawks’ patience paid off. Defenseman Duncan Keith kept the puck in and made a smart play to keep control of it down the left wall before dishing to winger Teuvo Teravainen, the 20-year-old Finn who had been a healthy scratch as recently as Game 3 of Chicago’s last series against Anaheim. Teravainen quickly unleashed a shot from 49 feet that somehow found a way through a thicket. With Chicago winger Marcus Kruger and Tampa Bay center Valtteri Filppula screening Bishop in front, the goalie never saw Teravainen’s shot. By the time he knew it was coming, it was already in the net.
Still, a tied game didn’t quite re-ignite the Lightning’s jets. Just two minutes later, after an ill-timed icing and a forced Tampa Bay timeout, Teravainen made the key play to give Chicago the win. With a deft little poke check on J.T. Brown, he put the puck onto the stick of Antoine Vermette in the slot, and with a beautiful shot high off the right post and in, the center gave Chicago the relief it needed and in some ways, expected.
“We know … all it takes is one shot to tie it up and one play,” Keith said. “We’ve come back in a lot of games over the past year, the last few years. It’s what it comes down to, pushing knowing it’s not over until the whistle or the siren ends the game.”
It was an example of Chicago, in its third Cup final in six years, tapping the deep well of its big-game experience. And for Tampa Bay, perhaps, a stark reminder of its youth and inexperience.
“I think we sat back a little bit too much, maybe [played] a little bit too scared to lose,” Tampa Bay winger Alex Killorn said. “But when you give a team like that so much possession time with the puck, they’re going to make plays.”
The irony of the evening was that through most of the game, the Lightning held the lead, one they secured after a spirited start. In the opening 10 minutes—during which Tampa Bay outshot Chicago 7-2—Tampa Bay offered a glimpse of what it could be. The Lightning tested Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford early, but he responded. Only a spectacularly unique shot could beat him on Wednesday night. Just 4:31 into the game, Killorn made a jaw-dropping no-look backhanded deflection from a sharp angle.
“I mean, you don’t expect to score on those shots, but I was just trying to sort of hit it towards the net,” Killorn said. “Not something you practice, but lucky it went in.”
The three goals the two teams scored on Wednesday night were hardly the kind of tic-tac-toe plays that most expected from these clubs. With their slick passing and strong possession games, the game was expected to be an up-and-down affair. But the reins on the offensive stars seemed pulled back for most of Game 1. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews had four shots between them; the Triplets (Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov) were kept to just two.
It seemed only a matter of time, however, that one side would see a sliver of opportunity and pounce. Tampa Bay didn’t—Ryan Callahan was stoned on a breakaway just minutes before Chicago’s first goal. With a little more “freedom,” as Keith said after the game, the Blackhawks finally found their chances.
“Could we sit here and say, ‘We're going to hem the Chicago Blackhawks in for 60 straight minutes?’” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “Kind of hard to do. Nobody's found a way to do it yet. I thought we generated some scoring chances…. They just happened to get the extra one.”